The heart-wrenching sight of oil gushing from the seabed and drifting into fragile wetlands along the Gulf Coast has shaken our confidence in deepwater drilling and especially in BP, whose apparent recklessness deserves the stiffest penalties possible.
Despite this horrible mishap, which has destroyed livelihoods and soiled natural habitats, the United States can't afford to abandon deepwater drilling anytime soon. Companies aren't drilling a mile below the ocean's surface for the fun of it. The easy-to-find oil in shallower waters is all but depleted or off-limits due to environmental opposition, yet the nation's demand for oil to fuel our lifestyles remains as high as ever.
With onshore fields steadily producing less since the 1970s, about 30 percent of all U.S. oil and more than 90 percent of all offshore oil comes from deepwater operations in the Gulf of Mexico. Short of drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and parts of some Western states, deepwater drilling is the only immediate alternative to importing more foreign oil.
America has been slow to recognize this reality. In the Senate, an energy and climate change bill, which includes expanding offshore drilling as well as incentives for nuclear and renewable energy, faces an uncertain future due to the oil spill and election-year politics. Part of that path toward energy security includes finding safer ways to extract that deepwater oil and effective federal oversight of the process.
President Barack Obama's recently announced moratorium on new offshore drilling to assess matters, the creation of a commission to investigate the spill, a separate federal criminal probe into the accident and the reorganization of the industry's regulatory lapdog, the Minerals Management Service, are good starting points for what must change.
The permitting process must get tougher. Regulators again must be cops on the beat, not cozy enablers willing to accept the industry's promises on faith or angling for a lucrative oil industry job after leaving the government payroll.
Moreover, companies should face suspension of their other deepwater operations, be socked with heightened financial liability for damage and have their top executives held responsible for major violations. State and federal officials also must be better prepared to protect fragile shorelines and have comprehensive plans to cope with the worse-case spill scenarios.
Accidents happen, but growing evidence indicates that this severe a catastrophe was preventable with better behavior by both BP and federal regulators. Let's be ready for the next one.
(c) 2010, The Dallas Morning News.M